Taking a civil engineering apprenticeship

Photo of civil engineering apprentice
Sam Hollington is an apprentice civil engineer at Balfour Beatty. He wanted to learn through activity rather than going to university.

Sam is taking an apprenticeship that will lead to a masters’ degree in engineering. Here’s his story so far.

  • 2010 – member of army cadets, reaching rank of company sergeant major
  • 2015 – completed work experience with Balfour Beatty
  • 2016 – completed A levels in maths, physics and chemistry; completed level 4 BTEC in IT
  • 2016 – joined Balfour Beatty’s apprenticeship leading to a higher national certificate in civil engineering and eventually an MEng

Sam says...

As soon as I knew what civil engineering was, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I have always liked building things and as a child I would construct stuff out of anything I could find. I’ve also built three computers and have helped my dad with his car and with the houses he renovates. For my A levels I went to an engineering and design college, and during that time I looked into the different disciplines I could go into, but it was civil engineering that gripped my imagination.

Civil engineering is designing and building major projects that shape everything we use in everyday life, such as roads, transport systems and utilities. I liked the construction aspect and the thought of seeing projects from start to finish.

How work experience helped me get my apprenticeship

I did four weeks’ work experience at Balfour Beatty on four projects and afterwards I knew civil engineering was for me. I got the work experience through a friend there who put me in touch with a contact. I picked up some basic skills and made contacts with the managers of the four sites. At the end of the placement they asked me how I felt about civil engineering and I told them without hesitation that I would love to work there.

Some time later a manager emailed to tell me about an apprenticeship opportunity. My work experience with them meant my application was more desirable and I had some really strong references. Being an army cadet gave me lots of good examples to reference in my apprenticeship interview. I had got to the point where I was in charge of 360 cadets and ran training. My work experience gave me even more to talk about.

Deciding against university

I never really wanted to go to university as I much prefer learning through physical activity. The only thing that appealed to me was university social life and I wasn’t going to pay thousands of pounds for that! At first I thought about starting my civil engineering career by applying for ‘normal’ jobs, but apprenticeships seemed to offer the best of both worlds. My parents were really supportive of me doing an apprenticeship, though at first they were a bit sceptical because they didn’t know about the different levels. Once they had researched this, they understood that I would be starting my career rather than just going into a job.

How my apprenticeship is structured

I’m four months into my apprenticeship. For the first two years I’ll be working towards a higher national certificate (HNC) in civil engineering. After this I’ll go straight into the second year of a BEng degree, leading to an MEng. Over all it will take me around six years to get my MEng, which is a bit longer than if I’d gone to university full time, but my degree is paid for and I earn and get loads of experience. I attend university one day a week, spend time on ‘rotation’ in a particular division for three days and the rest of the time we are pushed to go out on site. My current rotation is in financial risk, looking at how to mitigate any financial loss.

Getting out to different construction sites

My employer exposes me to as much site experience as possible and I really enjoy it. Originally my line manager arranged this for me but now I know project managers I can contact them directly.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at different sites along the River Thames, watching and getting involved in the renovation and replacement of flood barriers and river gates, such as the Thames Barrier. It is part of a ten-year project to prevent billions of pounds of potential flood damage.

I knew that sitting in an office would never suit me. During a nine-hour day on site I am only sitting for about two hours of it to do some paperwork. Days are often long, so if you can’t manage a 7.00 am start then civil engineering may not suit you.

Advice for school leavers

Get work experience in any field that interests you. It will really help you make up your mind about whether that job is what you want to do. My work experience also gave me valuable contacts. Try to make a good impression when you start your apprenticeship by always arriving on time or a little early. Don’t say ‘no’ to opportunities offered to you. Even if you think you don’t have the skills to undertake a task, ask for training or help to do it.

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